Stretch marks are a touchy subject for a number of women but they are nothing to be ashamed of. WUKA experts discuss stretch marks and what causes them.
What Causes Stretch Marks?
You may already have experience of stretch marks – or striae as they are also known – and to be clear, they are very common. Dr. Adam Friedmann, consultant dermatologist at Stratum Dermatology Clinics, told us: 'Stretch marks are lines or streaks on the skin, which can be pink, purple or white in colour (depending on their age).'
But why exactly do they occur and what are the causes for them? Dr. Frieedman explains more:
'They occur where there is a tear in the dermis accompanied by loss of elasticity. Commonly occurring on the stomach, hips, thighs, back and breasts, they are generally associated with rapid changes in weight e.g. in pregnancy, obesity and bodybuilding.'
Stretch Mark Causes
Whether or not you get striae, how many you get and how deep they appear can depend on a variety of factors, such as family history of stretch marks and genetic predispositions. There are also many external factors that can contribute towards them too.
Pregnancy is a time of major growth for a woman, and striae gravidarum are a common feature as the baby grows. Dr. Friedmann explains:
'The skin is usually fairly elastic but when it is stretched quickly during pregnancy, it can affect the collagen and elastin fibres, which make up the skin’s structure. These elastin fibres give the skin suppleness, but if the area is stretched past its threshold, it creates a tear and scars the skin in the form of a stretch mark.'
Around 90% of pregnant women will experience striae gravidarum.
During puberty, both male and female bodies grow and develop very quickly. This means that the skin is forced to stretch further to accommodate this rapid growth. In some cases, however, the body isn’t able to produce enough collagen quickly enough to accommodate the changes.
It is the collagen in our skin which is responsible for making it elastic, so, if there isn’t a sufficient supply when it’s needed, then marks will appear.
Sudden Loss Or Weight Gain
Sudden weight loss or weight gain can also cause striae to appear. In the case of weight loss, stretch marks will appear wherever you have lost fat, usually in places such as the thighs, arms, shoulder and buttocks.
Excess skin following weight loss can cause some marks, however it is more likely that they are the result of prior weight gain and are only visible after weight loss.
For women, the most common areas to get striae are the breasts, hips and thighs. Obviously, this is down to rapid growth in those areas, particularly during puberty but also at other times in life too. Consider also the fact that drastic changes in levels of oestrogen (as occurs during your menstrual cycle) can also put the skin at further risk of damage, as it reduces the body’s ability to produce collagen and elastin – making the skin thinner and more susceptible to stretch marks overall.
Incidentally, men can also get striae, but higher levels of testosterone helps to keep them at bay a little more.
Being overweight is a major cause of stretch marks, and it makes sense was to why. If you are carrying more fat than your body needs, or if you have gained weight rapidly, the skin will need to stretch more and more to cover the extra surface area.
As with rapid growth during puberty, rapid weight gain can make it hard for the body to keep up in terms of collagen production. Without that collagen, the skin won’t be as elastic and therefore small scars can be left behind thanks to all that stretching.
Some topical steroid creams can cause thinning of the skin; this can result in reduced elasticity, leading to scarring. This usually happens with prolonged use, which isn’t recommended by doctors.
You might use topical steroids for conditions such as eczema. Other steroid treatments, prescribed for a variety of conditions, may also cause marks through weight gain.
Family Member with Stretch Marks
If you have family members with stretch marks, you are more likely to get them yourself too. But this isn’t always the case, as there are always lots of other factors at play too.
The fact is, anyone can get striae, both male and female (although being female does increase your risk) and there is often little that you can do to change that.
Why Am I Getting Stretch Marks?
Just like us, striae come in all shapes, sizes, and colours. They can vary hugely depending on how long you have had them, what type of skin you have, where they are and what caused them to appear in the first place.
At first, marks can appear as indented streaks that can be pink, red, purple or blue. They can be very small, or they can be larger, covering significant areas of the skin. Eventually, these marks will fade to either match your skin tone or to a faded, silvery colour.
If you are concerned about why you are getting stretch marks, it is a really good idea to take a look at your lifestyle to see if there are areas that you can identify as causes. Obviously there is little you can do about rapid growth during puberty or pregnancy, but many other causes of striae may be avoidable.
If you notice a lot of stretch marks appearing over a short period of time, make an appointment with your GP to discuss the potential causes and to request a referral to a skin specialist.
Stretch Mark Treatments
You might be wondering, do stretch marks go away naturally? Well, once you have stretch marks, they are here to stay. They will fade, and there are treatments that you can use to keep the skin soft, supple and less prone to getting more.
There are treatments on the market that claim to get rid of stretch marks but be wary of spending a lot of money. There’s little evidence to back up the claims and most treatments will only reduce the appearance of stretch marks. They can’t get rid of them altogether.
If you do want to seek treatment for striae, the NHS recommends trying retinoid creams or hyaluronic acid, microdermabrasion or laser treatments.
Natalie Turner is a registered nurse with over 24 years of medical experience, and is a full member of the Nursing and Midwifery Council, The British Association of Cosmetic Nurses and the Aesthetics Complications Experts Group. She runs the Adonia Aesthetics Clinic and Academy and told us:
'Since stretch marks are actually an area of the skin where the collagen is damaged, treatments to improve stretch marks are directed at rebuilding the integrity of the collagen in the area of the mark.'
So, when it comes to specific treatments, how do they work and are they worth the money? Natalie said:
'Microneedling is a great option to aid in stretch mark removal. It uses a device with many tiny needles which penetrate the skin and causes micro-trauma to the skin, which stimulates the collagen and elastin to rebuild and to help the appearance of stretch marks.'
Natalie also recommends hyaluronic acid, but says that retinoids might actually be more effective:
'Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that's often used in acne and anti-aging skincare products. It works by improving the rate of cellular turnover, providing effective exfoliation and can be useful in reducing the appearance of stretch marks.'
And if you’re wondering about laser treatments for striae, Natalie told us that this can be another option too:
'Collagen-building lasers, such as fractional Lasers help to stimulate dermal repair and reduce the appearance of stretch marks so that they fade and blend in with the surrounding skin. A course of laser treatments are recommended before patients see results.'
Remember that any treatment you pursue may be costly and may not give you the results you want.
Treat marks as soon as they appear. Using a good moisturiser will help to diminish their appearance more quickly.
Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and moisturise your skin regularly. You don’t need to spend loads on anything fancy either; water is enough and a good body cream that helps to nourish and soften is all you need.
Eat well. A balanced diet with plenty of vitamins and minerals will help to keep your skin healthy.
A better strategy for dealing with scarring might be to work on prevention instead, and to adjust the way you see your body and all its ‘imperfections’. There aren’t many of us who don’t have these marks, and it might be a better use of your time and energy to focus on celebrating body positivity instead.